Looks like Besson's found a way to tap into 11% of his brain capacity...
Although bolder, more imaginative, and more refined than almost anything he's made since The Fifth Element, this snappy Scarlett Johansson-led Luc Besson sci-fi actioner still peaks too early, struggling to make good on its audacious premise and eventually tailing off into faintly anticlimactic oblivion.Certainly the film that it is most being compared to - and quite rightly - is the fast-fun-the-first-time-around Bradley Cooper thriller, Limitless, which essentially tried to capitalise on the now-debunked myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. Admittedly Besson comes to the party a little bit late in the day, but thankfully he brings an arsenal with him, punching through all the expected plot silliness with stylish action set-pieces, a sexy, pouting super-powered heroine, and a surprisingly expansive sci-fi slant. Working to an efficient runtime, it's certainly his most competent production in years although, ironically, it's one of the new areas he's dabbling in - superpower territory - which is ultimately his undoing. Johansson capitalises on her relatively recent transition to full-blown ass-kickery (finally hitting her stride third time out in the spectacular Captain America:Winter Soldier).She also injects her character with a couple of things she learnt through being an aloof predatory alien (Under the Skin) and a super-sentient-Siri (Her); as well as a couple of heavy hitters brought in for backup - Morgan Freeman's scientist (furthering the comparisons to Transcendence) and Oldboy himself, Choi Min-Sik as the nasty villain - Besson certainly has all the ingredients to pull off one of his A-game action-thrillers. Unfortunately he loses his grasp towards the end, throwing up a load of effects and relatively refreshing philosophical/existential 'weight', but straining to maintain tension - having crafted an all-but invincible protagonist - or deliver his conclusion with impact. Still, for all its limitations, Besson's 'Limitless' is a pretty fun ride, which certainly shows a bolder side to the writer/producer/director than we've seen in quite some time.
The story - an element which has not been a Besson strong point of late, having churned out a dozen cookie-cutter writer/producer efforts over the last fifteen years, varying from engaging (Transporter, Taken) to silly-but-fun (Lockdown, Transporter 2, From Paris with Love) to pretty poor (Taken 2, Transporter 3) - involves Johansson's innocent American-abroad getting roped into trafficking drugs for her douchebag boyfriend and ending up with a bag of them sewn into her stomach. When it violently breaks, the synthetic super-drugs don't actually kill her (much like radiation works it's wonders in Stan Lee's universe) but instead give her super-powers, which appear to grow with every passing moment; gradually allowing her to use more and more of her brain power to increasingly amazing effect.
This reasonably imaginative premise is painted with some fairly unabashedly brutal brushstrokes, at once introducing us to our pretty vulnerable wide-eyed heroine (which Johansson has always done well), whilst also dipping us into the seedy underworld which you just know she's later going to take apart, and giving us a positively nasty, downright evil villain in Choi Min-Sik's drug lord, who is probably the best villain we've had in a Besson-scripted piece since back in the days of Oldman (Leon, Fifth Element). Besson also delivers it all slightly differently, interjecting real predator-prey hunting footage to emphasise the brutality of the opening; something which feels distinctly non-Hollywood in nature (Woo tried the same with an early cut of Hard Target).
Soon the 'Limitless' factor kicks in - in a good way - and we spend a chunk of time with our heroine, exploring her newfound and ever-growing powers as she uses them to physically and mentally tackle her enemies, and, as they grow in number and build up to bigger and bigger guns, she too gains more power - building to that tag line conclusion 'the average person uses 10% of their brain capacity, imagine what she could do with 100%' (although I prefer the witty and well-timed reverse logic applied for the meme-style promos for Dumb and Dumber To).
With even a dawn of Man 2001 homage, it's clear Besson was aiming high, and it's no coincidence this is the best we've had from him in years.
Indeed with such a fun, action-packed, and even occasionally imaginative first act-and-a-half, it's just a shame that Besson finds it so difficult to deliver the goods as we come close to some sort of conclusion, straining hard to make such an initially easy-to-root-for heroine come across as anything less than, well, indestructible, in the end; losing tension in the process, and rounding things off in a way that far from makes good on the interesting premise.
Whilst Besson was clearly going for a Matrix crossed with 2001 vibe (he even says that he was trying for a little Inception too), making such audacious comparisons only sets the film up for a fall - there's no way that it's in the same league. But sticking to comparisons with more recent and more mediocre sci-fi fare, like Limitless and Transcendence, and you find it actually stands up pretty well, in many ways doing its job far more effectively than either, and arguably positing more interesting philosophical concepts than either within a more stylish shell.
It's certainly the most visually and narratively imaginative work we've had from Besson in years and, who knows, maybe it's significant Box Office success will see him return to Big Screen old school form. Although the more likely scenario is an unnecessary sequel to this particular film, we can but hope for another classic Leon/Nikita-level Besson flick and, at the very least, this feels like it takes us one step closer to that dream becoming a reality.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.